Canada brome, or hairy woodland brome, is a native perennial, tuft- or clump-forming, cool-season midgrass. It has fibrous roots and usually lacks rhizomes.
Leaves usually 4–6 per stem. The leaf sheaths are loosely overlapping, sparsely to densely hairy, with the top strongly concave (there is a V-shaped opening opposite of where the blade bends away from the stem), lacking a well-defined ring of hairs on the outer surface and without auricles (a pair of earlike flaps where the leaf blade joins the leaf sheath). The leaf blades are 4–14 inches long and about ¼–½ inch wide, usually hairy, and dull on the undersurface. The leaf blades are relatively thin-textured, seeming floppy and lax and spreading widely.
Flower heads open panicles with numerous spikelets, the branches spreading or drooping at maturity. The stalks of the spikelets are longer than the spikelets. The spikelets are about ¼–1 inch long, slightly flattened at maturity, with 5–12 florets. The awns (bristly filaments) extending from the spikelet’s lemmas (the outer scale-like structure curving around each floret) are about 2–8 mm long and straight. The glumes (pair of scale-like structures at the base of the entire spikelet) do not have awns. This is the earliest-flowering of our three native species of bromes. Flowers for only one or two weeks, between late May and early July.
Similar species: Some 14 species in genus Bromus have been recorded for Missouri. Only a few are native; the rest are introduced. The other native species are hairy woodbrome (or flanged brome, B. latiglumis) and satin brome (or Virginia brome, B. nottowayanus), both of which are uncommon. The latter is the one most commonly confused with Canada brome.
Similar to Canada brome, satin or Virginia brome (B. nottowayanus) has about 4–8 leaves per stem, lacks auricles, and has a V-shaped opening at the tip of the leaf sheath. However, at the tip of the leaf sheath, satin brome has a well-defined ring of hairs on the outer surface. Also, in satin brome, the leaf blade’s undersurface is shiny (“satiny”) (not dull) — however, this is a little tricky because satin brome’s leaf blades are twisted at the base, so the hairy upper surface is what faces down. Satin brome is uncommon and widely scattered in the state.
Of the many introduced bromes, several are confusingly similar to Canada brome and to each other. The most common introduced brome in Missouri is downy chess (or downy brome or cheatgrass, B. tectorum), with flower stalks that become pink or purple-tinged, often forming dense stands along roadsides and other disturbed places.
Height: flowering stems usually 24–48 inches.
Habitat and Conservation
Occurs in mesic (moist) to dry upland forests, often in ravines or valleys, banks of streams, ledges of wooded bluffs, and less commonly along margins of sinkhole ponds and bottomland forests. Also occurs in old fields and roadsides.
This is the most widespread of the native perennial bromes, both in distribution and variety of habitats. It occurs variously on dry, cherty slopes and in rich, moist soils of sheltered ravines and valleys. Usually found in shaded areas.
Native perennial tuft- or clump-forming, cool-season midgrass.
Canada brome is one of the few brome grasses native to Missouri. Most of the rest were introduced for use in pastures or other fodder, or for erosion control. In many parts of the country, introduced bromes are a problem because they are relatively unpalatable to livestock, and so they are called cheatgrasses. Some species with long, spiky awns can injure the noses, eyes, mouths, and intestines of the cattle and other animals that attempt to graze on them.
Many of the introduced bromes have proven to be invasive, especially in disturbed or overgrazed habitats in the western United States. The degradation of western shortgrass and sagebrush habitat — in large part by nonnative, invasive bromes — is causing serious declines in the populations of sage grouse and other native species. In Missouri, some of those undesirable bromes have become widespread and common, sometimes at the expense of native plants and animals.
Bromes, as a group, are generally not pretty enough to be grown as ornamentals.
For people or for livestock, bromes, as a group, have little food value. There are a few exceptions, however, in other parts of the world, where certain brome species are eaten by people, livestock, or both.
The English name “brome” and the scientific name Bromus come from the ancient Latin bromos and ancient Greek bromós, both names for oats, which this group resembles. The species name, pubescens, means hairy with soft, short, downy hairs — like the “peach fuzz” on a pubescent teenager’s chin.
Grasses in general are important producers of the basic vegetation that feeds — directly or indirectly — animals all around them. For example, the leaf-mining beetle larvae that eat tunnels within the leaves of this grass mature into beetles that are eaten by birds, reptiles, and mammals. Grasshoppers, aphids, leafhoppers, and other insects also provide food for vertebrate predators.
Many types of grasses, including bromes, are eaten by the caterpillars of skipper butterflies. Grass skippers are the smallish, heavy-bodied, often tan or orange, fast-flying butterflies that hold their forewings in a V-shape while their hindwings remain horizontal—kind of like little fighter jets. You’ve probably seen them visiting flowers on sunny summer days. There are about 135 species of grass skippers in North America north of Mexico.
Canada brome, as a woodland groundcover, plays a role in stabilizing the rather thin, rocky soils of upland woods, permitting many other plants, including mosses, wildflowers, and trees, to survive. Together, these plants build woodland natural communities, with all the plants and animals they support.